Today as I write this voting booths have been closed for 30 minutes in Cambodia and counting will begin soon for Cambodia’s general elections.
Cambodia’s ruling Prime Minister Han Sen trumpets democracy, but repeatedly in elections there are so many irregularities and enigmatic situations that it would be a brave commentator who could honestly admit that the election results cannot be questioned.
In the latest election the main leader of the opposition, Sam Rainsy was not actually allowed on the ballot. It was said that he hadn’t done his paperwork on time, but the man has lived in virtual exile.
Even so, when Rainsy returned to campaign for his party last week, he was treated to a heroes welcome by more than 100,000 people who demonstrated in his support in Phnom Penh, and more than 50,000 who did likewise in Siem Reap. This is unprecedented.
The naked opposition to the main party must also come as galling to the Prime Minister who likes to lay claim that he is a popular leader. The nation news agencies and television channels were not allowed to cover the arrival of Sam Rainsy – yet the crowds gathered anyway.
The difference in this election is the surge of young voters, and their widespread intolerance of the corruption they witness in today’s Cambodia. Perhaps many of them have nothing to lose – being young – but regualrly on Facebook stories of corruption (farmers losing their land to wealthy palm oil producers – friends of the Han Sen Government no less) circulate freely. Everybody knows the score in the internet age.
I don’t expect the opposition parties will win even more than a third of the 125 seats in Parliament – there are too many irregularities and too much gerrymandering of seats to expect much else – but even so, this election marks a watershed.
It marks a moment when not just radical commentators, but everyday Cambodians have put the Government on notice.
If Hun Sen is alert to the will of his people, then he will start coming down hard on corruption, he will start demanding transparency from his Government departments, and start championing the rights of the downtrodden.
If he is at all wise, he will dial back his red-carpet treatment to investors who demand an easy ride (shoe factories that employ workers in unsafe conditions, horticultural behemoths that bulldoze villages) and start demanding greater fairness in a nation whose little wealth has ended up in the hands of the few.
This election, a third of voters are under 30, and it is common knowledge that they are the generation unimpressed by the domineering Hun Sen style of Government.
Next election this cohort will generate closer to 40% of the vote.
Why do I write about this subject today? Because the work we do with the poor rural people we deal with is not just about rice on the table, and receiving an education. It is about giving people hope for their future. Foreign supported NGOs can’t provide hope: only the Cambodian people – and their elected Government can provide that.
Coverage of the election: click here. The Government was severely punished but held on.
But a November 2013 report into the elections leave big questions about the outcome. Here.